Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day

I find it difficult anymore to celebrate Memorial Day.

I try, I really do.  I go to the parades, or I try to write something heart-stirring on one of my blogs.  And every time, the loudspeakers end up blaring cheap, soulless Lee Greenwood, or I end up staring at the page, finding no patriotic sentiment worth sharing.  What I find feels cheap and forced, and only makes me angry.  And when I encounter these feelings, I find that my heart just isn't in it.  

It's not just Memorial Day, of course; it's like that with a lot of "patriotic" holidays.  You'd think that, being a vet, my patriotism would be much stronger, much more "on display."  But it's not.  The years have made me cautious about patriotism; it's a loaded word these days, and it now connotes ideas outside of its original meaning.  

I realize that some will react to my confession with horror, and use it to try and question me.  I can hear the charge now: How dare you question those who sacrificed for your freedom?  To which I answer: my problem is not with the past sacrifices that my predecessors in uniform have made, but rather with the use of that sacrifice to quell dissent in the present.

I feel like, to be considered a patriot these days, one has to unthinkingly champion any war we've ever fought; to do otherwise is "hurting the troops."  In this regard, I feel like patriotism is no longer a common ground, but rather a cudgel wielded to enforce conformity.  If you question a given war, or even war in general, you just hate America.  As such, patriotism is no longer an affirmation of shared values; it's a sign of deference to authority.  I'm not comfortable with that kind of patriotism.

I don't want to love my country just because someone else says I should.  That's not freedom.

My problem with Memorial Day is not with honoring those who died for our country; it's with the fact that nobody questions what they died for, or whether their deaths then can be used to justify the reasons we send soldiers to die now.  Ask anyone that question: "What are our soldiers dying for?" and I'll guarantee you they'll give some answer to do with "freedom" or "liberty."  However, when pressed further, they'll be unable to quantify any answer beyond that.  And that bothers me.  Meanwhile, more soldiers keep dying, but do we ever think to question why they have to die?  Not really.

How can we eulogize the war dead, even as we bring ever more flag-draped caskets home from wars whose intent and scope are barely-defined?  Can anyone tell me?  And as we memorialize those dead, is anyone really concerning themselves with the veterans who are still alive: the ones who've come back broken, or scarred, or unable to adjust back to daily life?

Not really, it seems.

A lot of very brave servicemembers have sacrificed over the years, all for the greater good of our country.  I'm not denying that.  But it bothers me that, even as we honor their sacrifices, we continue killing and maiming soldiers today, for a set of ideas that nobody seems to be able to explain.  That strikes me as offensive, and ignorant.  Life is too precious to throw away without good cause.

Worse yet, to do so in the name of a cause we ourselves can barely define.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Honoring A Request

I apologize for the long absence.  Things have been a little chaotic here with work and school.  I suspect that things are about to get a little more dramatic on the home front, but that's another discussion for another time.  Meanwhile, I'm keeping up on a promise made to someone who contacted me a while back.

I received an email several weeks ago, purportedly from a friend of a friend who reads this blog.  His claims are, of course, unverified--I'm no journalist--but he asked that I share what he had to say.  As someone who knows well the sting of others trying to discredit what he feels or went through, I have no intention of speculating on his experiences or background.  For every person who claims to be dealing with issues and isn't, there's another half-dozen who really are and don't talk about it.  Therefore, I'm simply sharing what he has said to me, in its unvarnished format.

I have my own thoughts on what this young man has shared, but I don't have them entirely in order yet.  As such, I'm simply going to pass his words along, and let it go from there.  I'll offer up any comments I might have in a future post.  Here goes:

A friend of ours gave me the link to your blog as he felt it might help me with some problems that I have now.  I ask that you please share my story as I can’t due to contractual obligations with the US government.
I joined the military in 2000 when I was a mere seventeen years old. I joined so that I could work in a Special Operations.  Just before my 19 birthday I was deploy because of Sept 11, 2001.  A few weeks after I deployed I had the most traumatizing event of my short life.  As my friend and I stood next to each other, preparing to light up a cigarette, we gazed into a building where my team was considering resting for the night.  We had watched the area for several hours and had seen no movement, so we felt it was comfortable to be in a fairly open position.  As my friend placed his cigarette to his mouth, and I light mine, I heard a shot ring out and felt something splash my face.  I had seen where the muzzle flash had come from, kneeled down, took aim, and ordered my friend to find cover.  I saw a dark spot in the window where a person was standing; I pushed every ounce of air out of my body as quickly as possible so I could shoot.  I was so focused I could not hear my team leader yelling at me.  Just as I started to squeeze the trigger I felt a heavy wind pass the left side of my face, then the recoil of my weapon.  I kept my sights on the area where I had shot and noticed the dark shadow I had seen was gone.  I shouted for someone to cove me so I could move to a safer location, unknowing if there were any more people in the building.  I turned to my right as I stood, waiting to hear my friends voice telling where he was at, but as I stood I saw his lifeless body laying next to where he had been standing. 
I collapsed to my knees; there was no thought, mere reaction from my body.  Nothing I had trained for the past year could have prepared me for this moment.  I grabbed my friend by his body armor, which we wore under civilian clothing, and before I could even speak or yell at him I felt a tear run down my face.  I was a hard young man who had never cried in his life, not even when losing a family member, but I could not stop the tears from running down my face. 
My team leader came from behind me, and told me we had to clear the building.  We rushed the small building as fast as any of us could run.  Most of the tactics we use went out the window as we approached the building.  Despite having Senior NCO’s on the team, most had never seen true combat, and all of us were rattled by what happened.  As we stacked against the door I took the first position, my friend’s position in the stack.  I was so filled with rage I could not control myself.  My team leader gave us the go, and we cleared the entire building without having to fire a shot, because there was only one person in the building and they already lay dead on the floor.  I approached the body with hatred, wanting to kill him again, but as I got close enough to see his face I realized he was a boy, maybe 12 or 13 years of age.  For the next several months I would not sleep more than an hour a night, even when we were on a semi-established base.   I took endless sleep aids, but all failed to work. 
When I returned from deployment all I could think about was returning to war, but I felt conflicted for what I had done.  Yes, he had killed my friend, a man who can defend himself, but I killed a child.  I was able to sleep some as I found minimal comfort being with my wife and dogs; however, every night I slept more than 4 hours I would wake up from terrible nightmares of that day.  Sweat would pour down my face, some times so much I would have to change the sheets, but in my dreams it felt like my friends blood splattering on me. I could feel the round that passed my face by mere inches.  I would even feel the of the recoil as I shot.  My dream would flash-forward to when I saw the body, and then I would wake up. 
I constantly asked to be deployed over and over again, even when I had just gotten back and knew another mission was coming, or if I was supposed to come home and I knew a team member on another team got hurt.  We were supposed to be gone six months and then home for six; but I volunteered so much the first two years of the war I gone over 700 days.  After one deployment, which I left for on Valentine ’s Day headed for the Iraq war, I found my wife had moved out and was living with another man. 
At this point my command forced me to stop taking deployments for a while.  They knew I needed the break even though all I wanted to do now was go back.  I turned to alcohol despite only being 20.  I would drink at least a 12 pack every night.  My roommates and I drank so much we had a large freezer in the garage that we only put beer in.  When that wasn’t enough I would just drink liquor with it.  One night I drank half a bottle of everclear to myself.  I spent almost 70 percent of my day drunk.  I would drink as soon as I got off work until three in the morning, be drunk when I went in the mornings, and sneak a drink at lunch. 
Out of nowhere an ex-girlfriend called, she was someone I had done very wrong too when we dated.  She said friends had told her I had been deployed and all she wanted to know was if I was ok.  We would talk, though most of the time I would drunk, and she couldn’t tell.  She came to visit me one week, but this week would make things worse.  The morning she flew in I picked her up from the airport.  Just as we reached my house my supervisor called and told me we had last another person from my very first team, my team leader.  When I got in the house I grabbed the bottle of vodka, filled a 32 oz class half way up, added a little OJ and chugged the whole drink.  I filled the glass again, and started to drink it.  I grabbed my cigarettes from my pocket and light one in the house, which I normally never did.  
I got so drunk that morning I was in the hospital by lunch with alcohol poisoning.  My friend convinced the nurses not to call the base and tell them I was there, and told them that I had just lost a friend.  She called my supervisor and told him I couldn’t drive into work that day because I was too upset.  When I woke up in the hospital my friend was there, the nurses said she never left my side.  I felt horrible, but all I wanted was a drink.  I checked out of the hospital late that night, as I told them I was just going to leave even if they didn’t check me out. 
When we got home my friend ordered me to sit on the couch, I had never heard her order any one to do anything before.  She walked to the kitchen, but I couldn’t see what she was doing.  I got up to smoke a cigarette outside, but she saw my reflection in the sliding door.   She barked again for me to sit down.  I heard her pour out every ounce of alcohol in the house.  She stayed with me for three weeks, and tried to help me, but I just wouldn’t let her.  I took my last drink the day I deployed again.
When I came home, my mom told her I was returning from yet another deployment and she was there waiting for me.  She helped me stay sober when I came, though I saw some of my friends get in trouble for attending an ASAP because they had similar problems, some even kicked out. 
I have moved on with my life, somewhat.  I still don’t sleep more than four hours a night; the few nights I do I continue to have the same nightmare I had eight years ago.  I am married again, to a wonderful woman, and have an amazing son.  My wife has asked me many times why I am physically affectionate, but still fell so cold.  I have never shared this story with her.  I still haven’t come to terms with that day, and think that I may never.  I don’t know how to tell her I killed a child.  None of my family members or my friends knows this story. 
I want to share my story, because you are right about how we are treated.  I have attempted to reach out for help with some select people from various backgrounds; some very religious, some not at all, some people who I felt I could trust.  The problem I have found is just as you said, they want to hear the “war stories” and how we are heroes, but when it comes to talking about the traumatizing problems they just don’t want to hear it.  I get bitched at for the problems that I have, and probably will have for the rest of my life, but they don’t want to hear what causes those problems. 
Many follow anti-war protests but fail to understand what they want and what they are fighting for.  Our veterans should have never been subjected to the conditions at Walter Reed, and the conditions probably would have stayed the same had someone, much like you, not brought it to the attention to CNN.  Thank you for your prior service and for your continued service to us. 
War Vet

So... yeah.  Like I've said, I think I may know the contributor, but I can't really be certain. Also, as is so common with these things, I can't do any sort of fact-checking.  BUT... this individual clearly needed to get some things off his chest, and he clearly trusted me enough to share them.  So, in honor of his request, I'm putting them out there for you.  You can make of that as you will.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What I Am, What I'm Not

I'm political, but not the way you might think.

I consider myself a social-justice Democrat.  I voted for Obama, I supported health-care reform, I support ending Don't-Ask/Don't-Tell.  I believe we are better as a diverse, inclusive, multicultural society than as one which is homogenous and insular. I support the idea of National Service.  The topic of gun control barely appears on my radar.

I'm antiwar, but not the way you might think.

I understand that certain things are worth fighting and dying for.  I won't call that just, but I'll call it necessary.  At the same time, I feel that we as a culture are entirely too comfortable with the idea of war.  We see grave threats in every tinpot dictatorship; we see World War II in every round of diplomatic sabre-rattling.  We're always sort of looking for the next war, and even then only the ones that people in power tell us to see.

War is a political move, but its consequences are very real.  People get hurt.  People die--innocent people, families even.  Entire cultures are often reduced to squalid poverty by war, and the recovery process can literally take centuries.  And the servicemembers who prosecute those wars often come back changed, sometimes for the worse.  But when they do come back that way, do we show them the compassion and understanding they deserve?

No.  In most cases, we cast them aside like broken toys, or turn a blind eye, as if instructed by some unspoken taboo.

Before you respond with moral outrage at these statements, remember: I have friends who've been reduced to husks by their service.  People treated them like heroes, too, until they showed up with anger problems, or with substance-issues that they couldn't control.  Those friends who gave their all for our country were neglected, mocked, or in some cases kicked out of the service entirely, without ceremony.  For obvious reasons, it makes me angry to see yellow-magnet stickers on SUVs.  It makes me angry to hear soccer-moms talk about the importance of not surrendering "over there."  Those same soccer-moms get uncomfortable when you talk about your friend with PTSD; they make a show of ignoring the homeless vets down on the Basque Block.   Their callousness, their lack of awareness says that our society views war as a hobby, as something we do when we're bored.  And I think our history reflects that.

I get tired of being asked why I haven't watched "The Hurt Locker." I get tired of answering people's questions and not being believed.  I think that we as a culture are numb to war, and until we gain a more serious understanding of military action and its human costs, then I don't believe that we can prosecute a just or effective war, anywhere.  And I'm sorry, but I will not abet the continued ignorance of my countrymen.

In this sense, I am political.  In this sense, I am antiwar.

When I first got out, I was drawn to antiwar protest groups.  I still maintain membership in a few.  But I haven't really protested, in part because of a lack of infrastructure, and in part because of the things I've seen within those groups.  Many are torn apart by infighting, and the protests I see put forward just... don't strike me as effective.  They don't focus on changing the narrative.  And that's a problem for me.

I read pieces from fellow activists, some of them heroes of mine, and the language they use is very politically-charged, very we're-still-fighting-Vietnam.  It only resonates within the echo chamber, and turns away those still unconvinced.  I hear talk of occupations, and illegal orders, and war crimes, and while I agree, I feel that the issue is still treated as black-and-white.  Soldiers aren't all baby-killers, any more than they're heroes beyond reproach.  They're human, and they make mistakes.  And sometimes, the strains are just too much.

But people don't see that.  They don't want nuance.  They don't want consequences.  They want a flag to wave, and a story to make them feel good.

I don't do feel-good.

My opposition to war is very simple: I don't think that we should engage in conflicts abroad to distract from problems at home.  I don't think war should be taken up as a source for profit.  I don't think that war is an answer to diplomatic obstacles.  I would rather see us engage the world and talk, rather than drum up bellicose, patriotic fervor.  I don't trust any war we have to sell.  I got news for you, America: if a war has to be sold to you, then it's probably not worth buying.

I want to speak out.  I do.  I feel that our current wars are unjust, and that my fellow servicemembers and veterans are often abused in modern discourse.  Everyday, their sacrifices are cheapened, their trusts violated by their service branches, their leadership, their government, and by the American public.  But I'm not satisfied that the existing systems for redress are working to change the dialogue.  I watch heroes of mine, fellow war-resisters, burning flags to make a cheap point.   I hear war-supporters question the truthfulness of my accounts.   Everyone's a traitor, everyone's a liar, and when everyone's a liar nobody can lay claim to facts or reason.  

But this war will be won by facts and reason.

I believe that our dependence on pre-emptive war hurts us as a nation, harms our standing in the international community, and harms our servicemembers and their families.  But when I see the fractured, fact-free shouting match that passes for dialogue even within our legislative bodies, I feel like I'm taking part in a discussion that my parents' generation simply failed to finish.  I feel like we're stuck in that old mindset: hippies-vs.-squares.  And when I feel like that, I can only think to myself: 

No. That's not who I am.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Milo Unbound

My name is Seth.  You can call me Milo.  It's been my pseudonym for as long as I can remember.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: I'm an Army veteran, having joined the Reserve in 2004 before going Active-Duty in 2005.  I was stationed in Germany for a few years, and spent 15 months of that deployed to Iraq.  My MOS was 21C - Bridge Crewmember, which means that I helped build, maintain, inspect, and perform reconnaissance of military bridges.  I received two ARCOMs during my time downrange, and I returned home in December of 2007.  In June of 2008, I ETS'ed.

It's been almost two years since I got out, and during that time I've made a new life for myself in the Pacific Northwest.   Many things are the same, but many things are also different.  I'm back in college on the GI Bill, and also working a full-time job in tech-support.  I have a tightly-knit circle of friends, and a sense of what I want from life and how to get there.  On Wednesday mornings, I take my wife downtown for bagels and coffee. I've been out for a while now, and compared to most of the other vets I know, I'm doing alright.  I've attained a measure of happiness.

My adjustment has not always been easy.  Coming back from a war, transitioning from military to civilian--these things are never easy.  But I had help--good friends, a loving wife--and a sense of why my choices were my own.  I spent so much time in Iraq making deals with myself, so once I got out, there seemed little reason not to keep that focus alive.  Compared to two years ago, I'm a happier, more complete person overall.  My priorities have shifted, and I count myself grateful.

But not everyone is so lucky.

I still keep in touch with people I knew.  One friend received a head injury while downrange, and for almost two years has been waiting on a med-board.  Another turned to alcohol, and got kicked out when I couldn't be there anymore to cover for him.  Another friend from outside my unit, he joined up with PSYOPs, and just married a girl from Thailand.  He's a lifer through-and-through, but I can see now that he suffers misgivings.

I've spent time out the wire, been mortared, rocketed, shot at.  But I never got hit with an IED.  I never had to raise my weapon to another human being.  I've never killed, and I've never watched a close friend die.  Some soldiers might be ashamed of this, but I'm not.  I credit these things with being part of why I've been able to cope.  And a lot of people I know aren't so lucky.  So this is why I'm writing--for them.

Being a veteran, you spent a lot of time wrestling with guilt.  There's always someone who had it worse than you, so you feel bad for talking about things that still bother you.  Sometimes your fellow soldiers only reinforce this, with all their talk about POGs and Grunts.  I existed somewhere between these labels.  You tell yourself things--If I'd just done one more mission, re-upped for one more tour--and you feel bad, hearing about friends that are going yet again.  And when you get that call from the friend who's been drinking again, you feel hollow afterward, because you got out okay.  That is a weird feeling--like what right do you have to have your stable marriage and GI Bill?  These are the things that haunt you.

But that's all over now.

I don't believe in a God, but I am thankful every day that I got out.  I have been delivered out of Egypt, and that is why I'm writing.  I'm tired of seeing friends that can't adjust, tired of seeing spouses not know what to do.  I am tired of never talking about my experiences because someone might not believe me.  I am tired of watching good friends suffer.  I want to help them, and this is the best way that I can think of that doesn't involve signs or slogans.  All I have are my words.  But I hope that they can be enough.

This blog is by a veteran, for veterans and their loved ones.  It may not always be about the war; it may not even be a great source of information.  But I hope that it can be a source of comfort.  I hope that, through my words, some might see that it gets better.  Through my words, maybe someone can figure out how to be happy, how to be whole again.  If my words can accomplish that, then that will be enough for me.

So that no one ever has to have it worse.